55% of the world's population are without safely managed sanitation

The importance of valuing water in sustainable development policies

Another warm day in Ottawa. What a joy to leave the winter coat, shawl, mittens, and beanie hat at home and go for a walk. The melting snow forms streams on the roads that feed huge puddles. This is one of them. You can see some first signs of spring on this side of the puddle, while there are still winter scenes on the other side. I enjoy the change of seasons and listen to the trickling water's relaxing sound that heralds springtime.

For many people worldwide, it was World Water Day. A UN day that raises awareness for sustainable water use of freshwater resources. Many more, all over the world, didn't know that water got any special attention today but were, like every other day, painfully aware of water's importance. 

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, reminded us of the numbers:

  • One in three people on the planet do not have access to safe drinking water.

  • By 2050, 5,7 billion people could be living in areas where water is scarce for at least one month a year.

  • By 2040, global water demand for water could increase by more than 50 percent.

There are so many aspects to water that are relevant for our future. To mention one more number: 4.2 billion people, or 55% of the world's population, are without safely managed sanitation. Think about that for a moment.

It was the theme of one of the webinars that I joined today. Unlike most of these discussions, it wasn't about a middle or least-developed country. It was about France, and the French Water Partnership organized it. During the pandemic, many stakeholders coordinated to increase access to water, sanitation, and hygiene for the more than 17,000 people in mainland France that live in hundreds of slums and squatter housing. Three-quarters of these sites did not have access to water on-premises. During the lockdown, NGOs that usually operate internationally joined forces with local actors to improve these people's situation by better coordination and cooperation. 

You may have heard the expression: 'he spends his money like water.' I don't know if this one is internationally used. We say this in the Netherlands, a country that is for a significant part below sea-level and where we constantly have to pump the water out to keep our feet dry. Forgive us for using this expression that doesn't seem to acknowledge the importance of access to water. It will be very different in a country that faces water shortages. This brings us to an issue that will become more relevant in a world where demand for water increases while water resource availability diminishes: how do we value water?

It became the central theme of this year's World Water Day: 'valuing water.' A new UN report by the same name was just published. 

A quote from the report:

'Those who control how water is valued control how it is used. Values are a central aspect of power and equity in water resources governance. The failure to fully value water in all its different uses is considered a root cause, or a symptom, of the political neglect of water and its mismanagement. All too often, the value of water, or its full suite of multiple values, is not prominent in decision-making at all.'

Yesterday, I wrote about the Sustainable Development Goals. Water is one of those 17 goals, and it is a pivotal one for sustainable development. I find it hard to find any of the other 16 goals where water doesn't play a role. Think about fighting poverty or hunger, the importance of healthcare, or climate. And water is even relevant for peace; agreements on sharing transboundary waters promote peaceful relations. My involvement with water has mostly been in this field, and I will write more about that in future newsletters. 

Today, many people signed up for The Planet newsletter. Thank you, this is only possible if the numbers keep growing, and with your help, we are on the right track. I hope you will also subscribe. If you can't, you can sign up for the free email version. I am happy to see you on the list. Tomorrow, it is one week since I first published. I will write more about The Planet tomorrow. 

The next time that you take a shower, water the garden, or drink clean water straight from the tap, think for a moment about the value of water. If you someday have to choose between a million dollars or a week without water, make the right choice. 

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